Revolutionary War Historical Article

The American Revolution Month-by-Month May 1778

By Compatriot Andrew "Andy" Stough

Editor's Note: This article was reprinted by Permission of the Gold Country Chapter No. 7 of the CSSAR and was slightly edited by the Sons of Liberty Chapter of the CSSAR

On May 1st, 1778, word from Congress informed George Washington that King Louis XVI of France had signed a solemn treaty of alliance and support with the United States on February 6th, 1778. The agreement acknowledged the United States to be a free and sovereign nation. France pledged to begin hostilities with Great Britain and support the new nation with finances and military support including arms, men and munitions. Naval support would also be furnished. Additionally it was agreed that neither nation would conclude a separate peace treaty with Britain. Any treaty would be jointly concluded and signed.

Reacting to this wonderful news, Washington ordered a day of rejoicing beginning with a time of prayer, to be followed by a parade and revue of the 11,000 man Continental Army which would be followed by games, feasting and other events in celebration of the occasion.

George Washington [1777] by Charles Peale Polk

On the 5th, Colonel Ethan Allen was swapped in a prisoner of war exchange. He was given a hero's welcome and a promotion to Brigadier General of Vermont Militia. Unable to function militarily because brutal treatment in British prisons had destroyed his health, he spent the rest of his days with his brother Ira as a political leader seeking Statehood for Vermont.

After three years of war British Commander-in-Chief General William Howe was frustrated, he was no closer to victory in Philadelphia than when he was first appointed to command of all British forces in North America in the now abandoned city of Boston. As far back as November of 1777 he had requested that he be allowed to resign as Commander-in-Chief of British Forces in America. He gave as the reason for this request that under his tenure that he had not been successful in putting down the American rebellion. He also requested that he be allowed to return to England after his long period of service in America as it was approaching three years since his departure from England and his arrival in Boston in 1775.

In February of 1778 his resignation was accepted and General Sir Henry Clinton was appointed Commander of British forces in North America. A formal change of command ceremony occurred May 8, installing Clinton as Commander-in-Chief. Clinton had been directed by London to abandon Philadelphia and return to New York; where some of his forces were to be deployed to other theaters to counter attacks by the French in the widening war which would soon encompass the Spanish and Netherlands forces in an attempt to regain lost possessions. A simple uprising in remote North American colonies had become an onerous burden on the Crown, leading to a new challenge by old enemies to take back possessions which had been lost to Britain in the Seven Years War.

Saratoga had been a turning point in the attitude and respect of European nations concerning the American Revolution and it's government. The planned abandonment of Philadelphia by Britain signaled to European leaders a failed policy and a change in attitude by the King and his ministers.

General Marquis de Lafayette, whom we have come to regard as a Hero of the Revolution, was as yet to win such recognition. He had served well at Brandywine, but not in a manner that satisfied his desire to distinguish himself. He pressured Congress without consulting Commander-in-Chief George Washington for an invasion of Canada to be led by himself and other French officers. Congress granted him the authority and he made his way to Albany in the dead of winter to assume command and begin the invasion. Albany had not been notified of a planned invasion. Not that it would have made any difference as the army there was undermanned and lacking in all things necessary to mount an invasion. The men were in a deplorable condition; scantily clad, lacking in food, military supplies and ordnance. They, like the army at Valley Forge, would be fortunate to survive the winter, let alone march through the snow covered wilderness to Canada and fight a well fed and equipped professional army. Lafayette was not only disappointed but disgusted that he appeared to have been made a fool.

The invasion was doomed from it's inception. Congress had again authorized, but not funded or coordinated, a military project which they themselves had directed. Embarrassed, they quickly shifted responsibility to Washington by assigning the project to him to determine what should be done. It did not take him long to make a decision. On March 13th he rescinded the order for the invasion of Canada and ordered Lafayette to return to Valley Forge, posthaste.

Lafayette, although chagrined by the affair, looked around for a new command. He convinced Washington that a forward force was needed for the safety of the general area and Valley Forge. On May 18th he was placed in charge of 2,200 men, with the purpose of reconnaissance and to secure Valley Forge against attack. Departing the same day, he took up a position on Barren Hill, half way between Valley Forge and Philadelphia.

British patrols reported the encampment to Clinton on the 19th and he determined to surprise and destroy Lafayette's force with an attack at dawn on the 20th. Clinton thought that this would not only destroy part of Washington's force but would embarrass French officers and France before the American people, perhaps even ending the alliance. On the same night of May 19th, 7,000 redcoats marched from Philadelphia to surround and surprise Lafayette. British General Grant with 5,000 men and 15 cannon made good progress; obtaining his desired position before daybreak. Clinton and General Howe [who remained during a transition period] with General Grey and 2,000 Grenadiers were not as successful. Captain Allen McLane and his scouts early in the British march captured three Britons who revealed the details of Clinton's plan which he sent on to Lafayette. McLane with 150 horsemen and 40 Oneida Indians then intercepted and delayed Grey.

Lafayette, realizing that he could not hold his position against such odds, particularly against 15 cannon, chose a line of retreat that concealed his movements. He remained with a rear guard to support enough activity to deceive the British into thinking that they had entrapped the entire American force. As the British forces approached, the rear guard quietly slipped away by the only route not blocked. At full daybreak General Grant arrived at the encampment from the north while General Clinton arrived at the other end only to find the quarry gone.

After a night of marching to Barren Hill the British had the rest of the day to march back to Philadelphia - empty handed. Instead of embarrassing the French and Americans, Clinton was chagrined that on his first mission in charge he had let the Frenchman and 2,000 men slip through his fingers. Washington deemed it inadvisable to strike back at Clinton in Philadelphia where street fighting would be costly and to the advantage of the defenders. He would wait for Clinton to abandon the city of Philadelphia and move to the countryside as it was now known that orders from London required abandonment of Philadelphia in a move to consolidate forces in New York to support a new strategy of invading the southern colonies and supporting a wider war.

When orders were finally given by Clinton to evacuate Philadelphia, the civilian population began to panic. Loyalists who had been so joyful at Howe's coming and so cooperative during his stay, now feared to remain in the city under Patriot rule. Those who could, departed for New York with Admiral Earl Richard Howe's fleet. The long train departing the city of Philadelphia with the ground forces was burdened not only with the trappings of the army but by a horde of Tory loyalists who could not leave with the fleet. Their baggage would swell the size of an already bloated wagon train, further slowing the movement of the army toward New York.

An overlooked or forgotten facet of British occupation during the Revolution was the large number of slaves who answered a British call to freedom. In November 1775, Lord Dunmore offered freedom to slaves who would leave their masters and join British forces at Norfolk, Virginia. Over the course of the war it is believed that at least 20% of all American slaves responded to the British call. While both sides employed black soldiers, fewer fought on the American side because neither the states nor congress wanted slaves for soldiers, fearing an armed revolt.

While some slaves did find freedom with the British, many were abandoned in the departure from Philadelphia. At the end of the war, and under the terms of the Treaty of Paris, many more were remanded back to American authorities.

While the British offered freedom to those who came to them, it also encouraged riots and mischief-making among others which injured or discommoded white American settlers. It also spurred slaves to take advantage of the situation by running away to settle in the wilderness of the western lands while others sought refuge with the Cherokee and Creek Indians. Some were accepted by the Indian tribes while others found themselves bound right back into slavery by the Indians.

Neither the King, his ministers or General Howe had ever understood the American people. The colonists were a new breed, unlike Europeans; or any other old country where, after princes and kings had risen or fallen, the people merely bowed beneath the new yoke and went on with their lives. Never having felt the yoke, Americans were not going to submit meekly.

Americans came from independent European stock who left the security of Europe to brave a new world; growing into a strong and self reliant people. In the past century they had not had much government, nor had they felt the need for one. Therefore, they were not easily deterred by a government and an army that offered them nothing more than what they saw at worst as slavery, and at best as serfdom. Life had never been easy in America and it would take more than the king's army to subject them to what they saw as tyranny.

The war would go on! Patriots would lose more battles than they would win. But,in the long run they would win both the war and their independence.


References: Christopher Ward's "War of the Revolution", Judith Spiegelman's "With Washington at Valley Forge", Gary B. Nash's "The American People".

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